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Jon Williams is hailed as a green energy hero, but he is not the environmental champion his public image portrays

Jon Williams, owner of Viridi Parente, speaks at a press conference in August 2019 (photo via State Senator Tim Kennedy)

Jon Williams, a Buffalo-area business owner and real estate developer, has been hailed for a new start-up venture to build battery packs to power construction equipment. Viridi Parente, Williams’ new business, has benefited from a $1.4 million low-interest loan from an affiliate of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, as well as other public support. The company has been lauded by Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes as “a shining example of the amazing potential of state-of-the-art technology.” State Senator Todd Kaminsky, the lead sponsor of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a landmark climate change bill signed into law in the 2019 session, said Williams was “emblematic of the entrepreneurial spirit that New York State is going to rely upon to meet our aggressive energy goals to combat climate change.”

However, Williams is not the environmental champion that his public image portrays. His primary business, Ontario Speciality Contracting (OSC), is a demolition and environmental contractor that services the petroleum and chemical industries. Several of Williams’ properties are the sites of significant industrial pollution that he has used public subsidies to remediate, and his recent purchase of the former Tonawanda Coke plant is a signal that he intends to continue to pursue this business strategy.

Perhaps most telling is the fact that Williams is the largest local donor to the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump, whose climate change denial and pro-polluter administration have been major obstacles to efforts to respond to the ongoing climate crisis. Williams’ contributions to Trump include a $35,000 donation to Trump Victory in June 2019. Beyond Trump, Williams is also a major donor to local politicians of both major parties, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown; State Senators Chris Jacobs, Tim Kennedy, and Rob Ortt; Congressmembers Tom Reed, Chris Collins, and Brian Higgins; and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Local and statewide leaders’ alignment with Williams raises serious concerns about their commitments to addressing climate change generally and the ambitious goals for a just transition set out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in particular. It exemplifies a growing rift in the climate movement between those seeking to address the climate crisis without damaging corporate interests and those committed to more significant and radical change.

Williams’ businesses

Jon Williams’ main business is the demolition and environmental contractor OSC, though he also leases and sells construction equipment and develops real estate. Williams has made headlines recently for a new venture, Viridi Parente, to build battery packs to run construction equipment on electricity. Viridi Parente has secured public subsidies in the form of a $1.4 million loan from a subsidiary of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, as well as an $800,000 investment from the Western New York Impact Fund, a for-profit venture capital fund backed by several Buffalo-area philanthropies, including the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

OSC, Williams’ demolition and environmental contracting firm, “works mostly for private chemical and industrial manufacturing firms,” according to Viridi Parente’s public loan application. Among other projects, OSC has built a fracking wellpad in the Marcellus shale, according to its website. From the description on OSC’s website, it appears that the pad was built for the fracking company Seneca Resources, a subsidiary of the Buffalo-based gas company National Fuel. Through 2017, Seneca Resources was the ninth most frequently cited fracking company by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for environmental violations, according to a report from Penn Environment.

Williams’ real estate development business is called South Buffalo Development LLC. Through this company, Williams purchased and is redeveloping the heavily contaminated site of the former Buffalo Color Corporation plant into a sports complex for Medaille College, office space for OSC, and “mixed-use apartments and other undefined space.” Williams has so far received $6.6 million in brownfield tax credits for the Buffalo Color remediation and the site’s legacy owner Honeywell has funded part of the effort.

In September 2019, Williams teamed up with Honeywell again when he bought the now-closed Tonawanda Coke plant, another local facility previously owned – and polluted – by Honeywell, which he intends to develop into a data center. Williams’ purchase of Tonawanda Coke has drawn strident opposition from the local environmental organization Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which has been working for years to address the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s pollution on the surrounding neighborhood. Clean Air Coalition argues that the sale to Williams will result in the public paying for remediation through the same brownfield tax credit program subsidizing Williams’ Buffalo Color redevelopment. The group supports designating the plant as a Superfund site, which would let the government recoup the remediation costs from Honeywell and Tonawanda Coke.

Another property owned by Williams – the former GM and American Axle plant on East Delavan Street – is significantly polluted with PCBs, a now-banned carcinogen. GM’s legal responsibility to pay for cleanup ended in 2012, and Williams, who bought the property in 2008, said “I’m not going to take responsibility for what GM did here forever.” Meanwhile, the PCBs from the site have leached into Buffalo sewers, likely flowing into local waterways through Buffalo’s combined storm sewer system, and the neighborhood around the plant has seen higher than average rates of cancer. After years of community organizing, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation performed some remediation work on the property in May 2019. The former American Axle plant is now the manufacturing facility for Viridi Parente, Williams’ new “green” business.

Viridi Parente has been called a “renewable energy start-up” in the Buffalo News and describes itself in its loan application as manufacturing “renewable energy-based engines.” However, the company’s products are not actually based on renewable resources. Viridi Parente manufactures battery packs from lithium cells imported from China. Lithium is a non-renewable metal that primarily comes from underground brine pools in South America. Lithium ion batteries also require copper and aluminum, other non-renewable resources whose mining comes with significant environmental impacts. Disposing of lithium ion batteries also raises environmental concerns.

The energy that consumers will store in Viridi Parente’s batteries is renewable energy only to the extent that power generated and delivered to the grid comes from renewable sources, which is currently a small portion. In New York State, 71% of all electricity was produced from non-renewable sources in 2017: 39% from oil and gas, 32% from nuclear, and 0.4% from coal. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the climate bill passed by the state government this year, requires New York’s electric power to be 100% carbon free by 2040, though it is worth noting that the “carbon-free” does not mean the same thing as “renewable,” as nuclear energy produces near-zero carbon emissions, but still comes from the consumption of non-renewable resources.

Political contributions

Jon Williams is the biggest Buffalo-area donor to President Donald Trump’s re-election efforts. Williams has given at least $35,000 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee between Trump and the Republican National Committee, since Trump’s election. He also gave Trump’s campaign committee $1,000 on November 7, 2016, the day before the Presidential election.

Trump has made climate change denial and hostility towards environmental regulation a signature of his administration. Since taking office in 2017, Trump has approved the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, rolled back regulations on methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, loosened offshore drilling regulations, withdrawn from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, and stacked executive agencies with climate change deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists. Trump has also gone after state climate change regulations, recently moving to block California from requiring stricter emissions standards for automobiles.

Williams and his wife Heather are prolific donors at the state and local level – to politicians from both major parties – as well. Together and through corporate entities that they control, the Williamses have given nearly $50,000 to Democrats and Republicans representing Western New York since 2015. 

The top 10 federal, state, and local recipients of the Williamses’ campaign money since 2015 can be seen in the table below:

Candidate Party Office campaigning for Williams’ contributions to campaign committees and joint fundraising committees since 2015
Donald Trump R President $36,000
Byron Brown D Mayor of Buffalo $11,855
Chris Jacobs R Erie County Clerk, NYS Senate 60, House of Representatives $10,600
Tim Kennedy D NYS Senate 63 $10,100
Tom Reed R House of Representatives NY-23 $7,400
Brian Higgins D House of Representatives NY-26 $5,450
Marco Rubio R President $5,400
Crystal Peoples-Stokes D NYS Assembly 141 $5,250
John Flynn D Erie County District Attorney $2,750
Keith Wofford R NYS Governor $2,500
Debra Givens Erie County Court $2,500
George Pataki R President $2,500

Data from New York State Board of Elections and Federal Elections Commission

“Green” capitalism vs. the Green New Deal

The elevation of a wealthy business owner who has spent at least $36,000 to re-elect climate change denier Donald Trump as a local “green energy” hero highlights a critical divide among the politicians and activists who acknowledge the climate crisis and are at least outwardly committed to combating it.

On one side of this rift are those who believe the crisis demands a global social and economic reorganization to live within the Earth’s limits and mitigate the damage already caused by two centuries of fossil fuel-driven growth. On the other side are those who believe that technocratic policy tweaks and new technological innovations can halt climate change while protecting private profit and current levels of global consumption and production.

The bipartisan embrace of Jon Williams and his money raises serious questions about how New York leaders intend to approach issues of social and economic justice in the transition away from fossil fuels and about their credibility when it comes to addressing the climate crisis.